Last Sunday my family had a most spiritually uplifting experience at a parish church we were visiting. As we discussed our experience we came up with many things that we liked, including the beautiful church building, traditional music, solid homily, and overall sense of reverence.
My children noticed one additional factor that made a difference to them (and to my wife and me). Namely, the faithful in the pews were dressed modestly and well–in their “Sunday best”–a phenomenon not experienced in many parishes anymore.
There are many motives for dressing up for Sunday Mass. We want to make the Lord the priority in our lives. More specifically, we understand Sunday Mass to be the high point of our week. What does it say when we put more effort into dressing up for work or school or company than we do for the Lord Himself?
The Catechism discusses the issue in the context of preparation for the worthy reception of the Eucharist: “Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest” (no. 1387).
Further, a restored sense of modesty should inform the way we present ourselves in public, especially at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. During the hot summer months, there is a tendency to “underdress” for Mass, and pastors and parents alike do not sufficiently address this issue. (Bishop Yanta did do a very good job of this a few years ago in this pastoral letter.)
Here I would like to provide an additional incentive to dress well for Mass. I suggest that we consider our Sunday clothes to be a kind of vestment. We rightly associate “vestments” with the special clothes worn by the priest and other ministers on the altar. Yet, the word “vestment” comes from the Latin verb vestire, which more generally means “to clothe.”
How would we feel if our parish priest processed down the aisle at the beginning of Mass wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip flops? Of course we’d be offended, and rightly so. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides, “vestments should . . . contribute to the beauty of the rite” (no. 297). The flip side is that the lack of appropriate attire on the part of the priest takes away from the beauty of the rite.
When it comes to the lay faithful, the Church in our time has emphasized that our common Baptism is ordered to our full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. How we conduct ourselves, even the way we dress, is an outward expression of our interior disposition to enter fully into the liturgical action as a participant, and not as a mere spectator.
So, I would suggest that instead of merely throwing on a t-shirt and jeans that we would see getting dressed for Mass as a type of vesting. It can be part of our proximate preparation for Mass and indeed a concrete way in which we prepare to offer ourselves in union with Our Eucharistic Lord (Rom. 12:1). And surely the way that we prepare and carry ourselves can be an edifying witness to others, who in turn may be encouraged to follow suit.
Do clothes make the Mass? No. But how we prepare ourselves, including conscious decisions regarding our attire, is an important first step toward fostering a renewed sense of reverence in our own backyard and indeed in our own hearts.